In Retrospect




Robert McNamara In Retrospect Random House New York, 1995


Vietnam had long since been a place of controversy, and where our government focused
it’s fear of communism for many years. Throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations
the government maintained that the war between the Communist north and the south can only be
won by the South Vietnamese, and that our military cannot win it for them. It stressed that the
fall of South Vietnam to communism would threaten the rest of the western world.
Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson
administrations, wrote In Retrospect because he wanted to “Put Vietnam in context,”(xx).
McNamara wanted to explain why the mistakes of Vietnam were made, not to justify them, but
to help the American public understand them. He relies not only upon his memories, but upon
the record whenever possible.
People have often called Vietnam, McNamara’s war, because he made it his
responsibility. As he learned more and more about south Vietnam, he became well acquainted
with it’s leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem portrayed himself as a man who shared our western
values. Though as our government would soon realize he was not the man we had hoped for.
Diem needed to be removed from power, he was becoming more and more unpopular with his
people. The Kennedy Administration seemed split on how democratic Diem really was. His
conflicts between the Buddhists and Catholics were becoming more outrageous than ever. The
administration supported a general’s coup to get Diem out of power. Diem and his brother Nhu
were both assassinated during this coup.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy, himself, was also assassinated on the streets of Dallas.
McNamara poses many questions as to whether the war would have continued on the same route
had Kennedy not been killed. McNamara feels that had Kennedy lived he would have pulled us
out of Vietnam. His reasoning was that Kennedy had told his cabinet “We are not going to
bungle into war.” Kennedy was ready to start pulling our troops out because it was obvious that
the war was un winnable.
Lyndon B. Johnson now becomes president. Many debates are being held on what to do
in Vietnam. After Diem’s death, the Johnson Administration faced political problems in Saigon.
The demands for U.S. military actions were growing.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnam launched an attack against an American ship in the
Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was supposed to have taken place on August fourth, but
McNamara has now concluded that the second attack never happened. Using the Gulf of Tonkin
event to his advantage Johnson went to congress. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution gave the
president the broad war powers. Meanwhile this resolution had been based on an attack that
might well have never taken place. McNamara discusses whether the Gulf of Tonkin resolution
gave too much unlimited power to the president. He does not feel that the Congress understood
what was happening in Vietnam nor how the Johnson administration would respond to it.
Though he never answers his own question as to whether the administration was given too much
leniency when it came to its actions in Vietnam, it seems as if the Congress was misled on all
the facts pertaining to the Gulf of Tonkin.
After the Gulf of Tonkin U.S. military troops were increased in Vietnam from 23,000 to
175,000. McNamara in hindsight looks back and wonders, why? Why did they escalate and not
withdraw? South Vietnam seemed like a lost cause. Their leaders were fighting among
themselves and yet we continued to fight on their behalf. He believes that we could have
withdrawn without any negative affects on our country. Was there another way to stop these
injustices, McNamara feels that all other resources were not exhausted before we ventured into a
war that we had little hope of winning.
Our government overestimated the fall of South Vietnam, would it really have threatened
the rest of the western world, probably not. McNamara lists eleven reasons for the major causes
of Vietnam. They include that the U.S. embellished the danger it would cause us had we not
intervened, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations lacked the knowledge of that specific
area, so there was no one to consult when major themes of this war needed to be debated. It
seems that whenever the Johnson Administration got the Tonkin Resolution passed they failed to
think of consequences before they reacted to a situation. McNamara is not only to